It seems like ages since the passionate, months-long presidential campaign fought largely over how to help the middle class and rev up job creation. Since then, Congress has allowed across-the-board budget cuts that are creating across-the-board hardships and shrinking the gross domestic product. House Republicans have proposed a budget that decimates the federal government. Obama gave a State of the Union address about how he would build the economy, but he hasn’t sustained that focus. He held a press conference this week that made a lot of news, none of it related to what probably will be a disappointing April jobs report Friday.
The gulf between the 1 percent and the 99 percent, meanwhile, is as gaping as ever. “The CEO of an S&P 500 Index company made, on average, 354 times the average wage of a rank-and-file U.S. worker in 2012,” the AFL-CIO reports. The dysfunction in Washington is, if anything, worse than ever. Sen. Pat Toomey told newspaper editors in Norristown, Pa., this week that expanded gun background checks failed because some of his fellow Republicans “did not want to be seen helping the president do something he wanted to get done, just because the president wanted to do it.”
Take that attitude and apply it to dozens of votes on economic proposals over the past few years, and you can see why, A, they failed; and, B, Obama is at wit’s end. Richard Trumka, president of the AFL-CIO, says infrastructure is another example of the problem Toomey identified. People need jobs, work needs to be done, the business community is on board, and interest rates are low. So why hasn’t Congress taken up any of Obama’s proposals, or come up with its own, to jump-start construction and renovation of roads, bridges, rail, airports, schools, and the like?
“Business in private will tell you that we need to do infrastructure because we’re falling behind,” Trumka told me. “They know that in order for the country to be competitive, we have to upgrade these systems. But they don’t talk about it. They’re afraid. They get pushed back by Republican leadership – ‘If you support something that Obama wants, than you’ll lose your support here’ ” on Capitol Hill.
As National Journal magazine has documented in its latest cover story and the Allstate/National Journal Heartland Monitor Poll, there is a real country out there in distress, hoping for more from its leaders. I called a few of the poll respondents and got an earful about what it’s like to try to make it in this economy. Two middle-aged women, one in South Carolina and one in Michigan, said they were on disability and wanted to get off it, but the jobs available at their education level required physical stamina they did not possess. One wanted to take college courses, but did not have the money. A few other snapshots:
- Terry Allen, 60, has been unemployed for two years after being laid off from his machinist welder job at Barksdale Air Force Base near Bossier City, La. He suspects age discrimination but says it can’t be proven. He looked for work of all kinds – “I’ve even tried to do log-truck driving” for the timber industry – but finally, “I basically gave up.” He now cares for his wife, who had a stroke five years ago, and he does odd jobs (this week he spent a day building a fence).
- Robert Adler, 71, an electronics engineer, says he’s worked on average one-third of the time as a consultant since 1987, when his job with RCA in Moorestown, N.J., ended. He says he “absolutely” wants to work. “I can’t live on Social Security alone,” he says. “Electronics was my lifelong career. It’s all gone offshore.” He says Washington should put the same tariffs on imported goods as other countries have on U.S. goods. “Equalize the playing field, and the jobs will come right back here.”
- Harry Spencer, 40, was unemployed for two years. He was at UPS for 10 years, then went through a succession of jobs before he was terminated as a Comcast office manager in Philadelphia for reasons he says he was never told. He is certified as a forklift operator but people with more experience beat him out for jobs. In other cases, employers were reluctant to hire him because he was unemployed or had been let go from an earlier job without explanation. Four months ago, he finally got work – and training in basic medical skills -- when a friend fell ill and needed a home health aide. “Congress could have stepped up a little more,” he says. “There are a lot of things that could have gotten people back to work a lot sooner.” And the president? “He’s still trying. It’s hard to fight against 1,001 when you’re the only one who’s standing up to fight.”
Obama didn’t sound like a fighter at his news conference this week. He sounded, as Slate’s John Dickerson put it, “defeated, licked, and out of gas.” The budget he issued last month didn’t put up much of a fight either, in the eyes of some Democrats.
A budget is largely a symbolic document in this era, which led some of Obama’s fellow Democrats to hope for a broad statement of values and vision, complete with ambitious and inevitably costly proposals to create jobs and opportunities. That didn’t happen. In fact, Trumka says, Obama's proposal to trim future Social Security benefits – viewed as a part of an opening bid on a long-term debt-reduction deal with Republicans – “takes us in the absolute wrong direction” by worsening income inequality.
Still, Obama has laid out a number of constructive if less sweeping ideas, including universal preschool, a better tax code, a revamped immigration system, more manufacturing and an upgraded infrastructure. All would stoke economic growth and need to be framed in those terms. Constantly. As Democratic consultant Paul Begala put it at a recent Bipartisan Policy Center panel, “Every time you talk about immigration, explain how this is going to be an engine of growth, because the younger and more diverse our workforce is, the better we’ll be able to compete in the world” and the more jobs we’ll create.
For the president, this is a two-step process. One, start talking about all of this much more and much more explicitly. Two, do it with spirit and enthusiasm and optimism, not attacks or a flat affect. It’s time for Obama to stop being so mindful of the political needs of Republicans – the “permission structure” he says they need to be on the same side as him – and speak up about the actual needs of the country. Try some relentless public cheerleading and promotion of his economic proposals, and leave Republicans to make and explain their choices. Sometimes you can overstrategize. Better to go down fighting, if you end up going down at all.